In Tunisia, Opening a World of Opportunities for Girls
For the past 14 years, the JDC-supported Kanfei Yonah school in Djerba, Tunisia, has given young girls and women access to education.
October 6, 2021
Just after sundown, five teenage girls sat on the school’s front steps, using iPhone flashlights to illuminate their history textbooks so they could study for an upcoming exam.
For Alite Sabban, the principal of the JDC-supported Kanfei Yonah all-girls school in the ancient and traditional Jewish community of Djerba, this simple scene is proof her hard work over 14 years is paying off.
“It wasn’t like this when I was their age. Before Kanfei Yonah, girls here could expect to do domestic work at home or perhaps become kindergarten teachers,” Sabban said. “Now, I have a twelfth-grade class so committed to their studies they threaten to bring mattresses and sleep at the school.”
“This is the first moment where we have a critical mass of young women beginning to think about the wide range of possible futures available to them,” she continued.
What might seem commonplace elsewhere is a quiet revolution for the estimated 1,200 Jews who call this southeastern Tunisian island home.
Djerba has a long tradition of girls’ education, dating back to the pioneering Torah V’Hinuch (Torah and Education) model spearheaded by the late David Kidouchim. Sabban’s goal is to take that strong foundation and deepen it — when she was growing up, girls were in school for just a few hours each day, but with Kanfei Yonah, she’s committed to “flipping the trend,’’ offering a full-day program through high school.
“We’re proud of providing a holistic education to the girls, so they can write their own stories and choose their own paths,” she said. “All of us — students, teachers, administrators, and our partners at JDC — share that clarity of purpose.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the school continued to be a focal point for Djerba’s Jewish community, with Kanfei Yonah teachers keeping in touch with students and distributing educational worksheets even when the school’s doors were closed.
Alona Tsaida, a 10th-grade student at the school, said she “can’t shine without Kanfei Yonah,” a Hebrew phrase that means “doves’ wings” and stems from a Talmudic story about the courage to be publicly Jewish.
“I see a real future now, whether that’s studying or working,” she said. “Kanfei Yonah is giving me the tools I need to follow my passions and help my family and community.”
As more and more young women begin to graduate, Sabban said she’s exploring continuing education for her alumnae in fields like information technology, English, and other “sophisticated work.”
JDC has invested in Djerba since the 1950s, and for over a decade, JDC has funded an educational consultant from Israel to visit the island, train its teachers, and partner with Sabban and others on developing a strong and innovative school that functions professionally and empowers its staff and student body.
“If you don’t invest in human infrastructure, then a community has zero chance of sustainability,” said Sam Amiel, the organization’s Tunisia country director. “Kanfei Yonah, and all of our work in small remnant Jewish communities, is a major platform for change. This is where leaders like Alite will take their communities to the next level, introducing not only things like foreign languages and computers, but larger ideas like equality and self-fulfillment for women.”
In addition to its work with Kanfei Yonah, JDC also supports more than 50 families each month through its COVID-19 humanitarian relief fund for the new poor — individuals never previously on community welfare rolls facing difficult financial circumstances due to the pandemic.
Sabban said JDC’s support is essential for realizing her vision for Kanfei Yonah and ensuring it’s “not just a dream but active and alive.”
“JDC is a shoulder to lean on. It’s a lot more than just money — it’s a reminder that our community is part of world Jewry,” she said. “And Kanfei Yonah is not just a school. It’s a community institution whose goal is to improve the lives of girls and women younger than me but my parents’ age as well. It’s holy work, and we will remain tough, determined, and never give up.”